Rights of women top population agenda

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TWO female prime ministers - Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan - yesterday challenged the United Nations population conference to discuss abortion, the former advocating a woman's right to abort an unwanted child, the latter explaining her opposition by quoting from the Koran. But both Mrs Brundtland and Ms Bhutto gave the UN a lesson in plain-speaking on women's rights: the US Vice- President Al Gore's bland and defensive address floundered in self- justification of the US abortion laws while making only passing reference to women's equality.

The most important passage in Mrs Brundtland's speech - and a clear offensive against the Vatican - was her contention that morality becomes hypocrisy 'if it means mothers suffering or dying in connection with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions and unwanted children living in misery.' Morality, she maintained, could not 'only be a question of controlling sexuality and protecting unborn life.' If this was not a call for abortion to be legalised worldwide - as some reports suggested - it clearly prompted Ms Bhutto to point out that Islam did not accept abortion for unwanted pregnancies, quoting the Koran to prove that no child should go hungry.

But it was Ms Bhutto - the woman who almost cancelled her trip to the conference under pressure from Islamists at home - who made perhaps the most powerful speech in favour of women's rights, drawing massive applause as she insisted that 'development policies must give women the means to make economically independent decisions free of male prejudice - empowerment of women is a means to reach population stabilisation.'

Such bluntness eluded Mr Gore who talked of 'holistic understanding' and a 'holistic solution' to problems of development. But Mrs Brundtland did not dodge the issue. 'The girl who receives her diploma will have fewer babies than her sister who does not,' she said.

No one could doubt yesterday that this conference is about women - their rights and the need to protect them from male domination - although few UN officials acknowledge this openly. 'We promise to make men and women equal before the law . . . to promote women's needs more actively than men's until we can safely say that equality is reached,' Mrs Brundtland said. Ms Bhutto urged delegates not to draft a development plan that could be regarded as 'seeking to impose adultery, abortion, sex education and other such matters on individual societies and religions.'